Syrup and the city: Self-styled superhero brings sugaring off to downtown Montreal

Here's a sweet tale, pun intended: Mario Bonenfant grew up making maple syrup in a small village in Quebec. Now, as Capitaine Sirop, he's keeping the sugar shack tradition alive in Montreal parks.

He calls himself Capitaine Sirop and is devoted to keeping the sugar-shack tradition alive

Mario Bonenfant, who also goes by his alias "Capitaine Sirop," uses a refractometre to measure the amount of sugar in sap collected from a Saint-Laurent borough tree. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

By day, he's a mild-mannered father of two. But when he puts a metal bucket on his head, Mario Bonenfant becomes Capitaine Sirop, energetic champion of all things maple syrup. 

"I invented Capitaine Sirop because, sometimes, I imagined myself turning around, taking a little shot of maple syrup and saying 'Come on, let's do it!'" said Bonenfant. 

Do what, exactly?

Well, Bonenfant is a country boy who grew up making maple syrup in the small village of Champlain, Que. just northeast of Trois-Rivières.

Now, as Capitaine Sirop, he's on a mission to keep the Quebec tradition alive by bringing the sugar shack experience to Montreal parks.

"I learned from my grandfather, and if I don't do something for my kids and the schools around here, it'll be lost. And I think it is lost! For most people, maple syrup is just a can in a grocery store," said Bonenfant. 

Bonenfant prepares to heat up maple syrup, to serve over snow as maple taffy. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

Maple syrup à la Montréalaise 

In Beaudet park, tucked in the middle of a densely populated Saint-Laurent neighbourhood, Bonenfant has everything he needs to fulfil his mission: a wooden sugar shack, a snow-packed trough where he can pour out tire d'érable and a custom-made boiler.

​He's even tapped the park's trees, and uses the sap to make his own, urban-style maple syrup.

Wearing his metal-bucket hat, Bonenfant checks on his taps. He can't contain his enthusiasm. 

"The water is running from the cover … so it means it's full. It's so beautiful," Bonenfant says as he peer into a bucket hanging from a large tree.

Making maple syrup from city trees has its challenges, such as convincing people it's safe to eat, getting municipal authorities on board and unwitting litter-bugs.

"I had a dream: to tap the trees close to the sidewalk," said Bonenfant. "But the minute you put a bucket close to the sidewalk, people put McDonald's cups inside."

Big-city syrup is sweeter than it rural counterparts. Bonenfant keeps a 2007 vintage tucked away for special occasions.

But the harvest isn't especially abundant. Most guests who pass through Bonenfant's maple paradise in Beaudet park will be sampling syrup from larger producers.

Students from the CEGEP Saint-Laurent wait eagerly for maple taffy. Many of them recently moved to Montreal. This was their first sugar-shack experience. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

Passing on traditions

Bonenfant has just laid out a fresh batch of piping hot tire. "Ok kids, come on," he yells as a group of elementary school children rush over. They devour the taffy in a sticky, joyful mess.

Later, a group of adults taking French classes at CEGEP Saint-Laurent drop by Bonenfant's sugar shack. Many of them, like Rouba Moussa from Dubai, are newcomers to Montreal, and have never been sugaring off.

"It's the first time for me, but I read about it a lot during my son's [schoolwork] and he likes it so, so much. And all the time, we have biscuits a l'érable, from maple syrup," said Moussa. 

After a few licks, Moussa decides she likes her maple taffy. For Bonenfant, sharing Québecois traditions has kept him going for nearly 15 years.

"It's something we should share more, really. Because by taking it for granted, we just forget to transmit it," he said 

Capitaine Sirop will be taking part in the l'Érablière Urbaine on Saturday, a maple syrup festival in Beaudet park.